Puppets in Action: A Conversation with Lawrence Switzky

May 30, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

On Wednesday, June 7 at 10:00am in the Innis Town Hall, the JHI is delighted to present a panel discussion with Basil Jones, Adrian Kohler and Professor Lawrence Switzky (UTM English and Drama) that will provide a scholarly look at Handspring Puppet Company’s development and effects. The discussion will be moderated by David Rokeby and the speakers introduced by Dean Melanie Woodin.

Puppetry has captivated audiences for centuries. Lawrence Switzky (UTM English and Drama) shares his background, experiences, and the origins of his interest in puppets. From his childhood experiments with rudimentary glove puppets to his profound encounters with visionary puppetry artists Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company, Switzky offers his perspective on the allure of puppetry and its impact on the world of theatre and performance art.

Can you tell us a little about your background, including your experience working with puppets and how you first became interested in incorporating them into your work?

I've always been fascinated by puppetry. I nearly wrote my dissertation on modernist puppetry but then I backed off, foolishly, when I encountered a lot of concerned looks (now I know that's exactly when you should plow aheadin my 20s I didn't have that courage). I used to make rudimentary glove puppets as a child. I think I first started taking the puppetry arts seriously when I went to graduate school at Harvard. Bread and Puppet Theatre, who specialize in colossal political puppets, used to tour to Boston every year. I was dazzled by the scale, the combination of modest materials (there was a lot of cardboard) and tremendous ambition (they took on human rights, exploitative labour, American political elections, drone-era warfare). The sheer tonal variation in their puppetry was also astounding: they could be whimsical, they could be terrifying, they could be holy. There was a puppet lending library in Boston and I used to take out all sorts of puppets to see how they were constructed, how they were articulated, how you could operate them, what you could make them do. There's a really intoxicating blend of power in operating a puppet and a feeling of being beholden to the object, of needing to respect its capabilities and lightness or heft. You're always working with a puppet as much as through it.

What drew you to the work of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company? What has been your professional relationship with them?

I'd seen Ubu and the Truth Commission when it played at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto and I'd also seen Woyzeck on the Highveld on video. I also tried to beg my way into a revival of their staging of Monteverdi's opera Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in New York City many years ago but it was sold out. And I knew about the miracles they'd achieved performing the animal through puppetry in War Horse. Several of Basil's essays are foundational to the contemporary theory and practice of puppetry, particularly the creation of life through breath and witnessing, and I'd read and admired them for years. I really got to know Basil and Adrian's work through the Mellon-funded JHI South-North project with the University of the Western Cape, when Veronika Ambros and I were tapped to run the puppetry quadrant on the University of Toronto side. Their art is incredibly intricate and detailed yet ceaselessly playful: the construction of the faces in their puppets is so multifaceted that they can suggest an endless variety of moods depending on which way the puppet is turned. When we met them at their house in Kalk Bay, Basil and Adrian were incredibly generous—they served us cake, they gave us a tour, they hunted down a copy of a DVD. Here were these titans of the art world and they were so attentive even though their workshop was in full tilt. I also know Basil and Adrian professionally through their Trust, which, among other things, funds an annual puppetry-based festival in Barrydale, a town in the Klein Karoo region of South Africa. That project trains local children in performance and creates a research-based production each year that explores their lives and history.

Can you speak to the role of puppetry in the wider world of theater and performance art? How does puppetry compare to other forms of performance, and what unique qualities does it bring to the stage?

This is an enormous question. For many years, puppetry was really unhip: it's what you'd see at children's birthday parties or in illustrations of historical popular entertainment, like Punch and Judy shows. Then, around twenty years ago, puppets started appearing everywhere -- on Broadway, in avant-garde performance. The Lion King on Broadway really popularized puppetry and created a hunger for it in mainstream North American theatre. One quality of puppetry is that it asks a lot from us: the puppet isn't alive, we all know this, it requires the puppeteers and the audience to lend it animacy and to sustain that life. You hear about the willing suspension of disbelief, but William Kentridge, who has directed several of Handspring's shows, refers to the unwilling suspension of disbelief—through suggestion and artfulness we become convinced that a carved block of wood is alive. The moment we all fail to believe in the puppet's life it becomes an inert object in front of us. There's a spirit of deep play and anarchy that puppetry also brings to the theatre. It's a rogue and wild art. Because it locates a character outside the body of an actor or speaker, you can get puppets to say things that you couldn't normally get away with saying if you spoke in your own person. I don't actually mind that puppetry is and likely always will be related to childhood in our culture: I think the puppet reminds us of the uncertainty about what is and is not alive that most of us experience as children in a way that's both invigorating and eerie. Even when what Basil and Adrian call the "stone age" art of puppetry appears in high-tech spectacles, it's very hard to take your eyes off them. We all have a good sense of what projection screens are going to give us. But with the puppet you never entirely know what it's capable of, or what you're capable of.

What can we expect at the June 7 panel discussion?

It'll be a unique chance to get inside the minds of two of the greatest puppetry artists in the world—and considering the sophistication and complexity of puppetry, that means two of the greatest artists in the world full stop. Basil will discuss puppetry as a philosophical puzzle. Puppetry has intrigued most of the mightiest intellects of history, from Plato to Deleuze and Derrida, and Basil will give us a lightning tour through some of the theoretical ideas in puppetry and how they flow through Handspring's approach to puppetry. Adrian is a master builder and he'll lead us through the creation of Little Amal, the twelve-foot puppet at the heart of The Walk, from conceptualization to construction and operation. I'll talk about Handspring's back catalog and how their art helps us to examine the human-animal relationship, to consider our relationship to technology, and how care of the puppet gives us examples of how to be compassionate with each other. I'm taking their productions as things to think with.

Don't miss Puppets in Action: Theory, Practice, and Possibilities, a panel discussion with Basil Jones, Adrian Kohler and Professor Lawrence Switzky (UTM English and Drama) that will provide a scholarly look at Handspring Puppet Company’s development and effects. The discussion will be moderated by David Rokeby and the speakers introduced by Dean Melanie Woodin.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023 | 10:00 am to 11:30 am
Innis Town Hall, Innis College
2 Sussex Ave, Toronto, ON M5S 1J5
Admission is free. Reception to follow panel, so please register if you plan to attend.

For more information, check out our event listing.